Monday, March 26, 2012
On Being Better
We tend to be a bit sloppy when faced with dysfunctional behavior, in terms of how we view the cognition behind it. Where I teach, 16 and 17 year old kids routinely act like 3 or 4 year-olds (no – I’m not exaggerating). A common – completely understandable – response from staff is disbelief, shock and offense at such immaturity. “What are you, some kind of dummy?!!”. (Not usually in such disrespectful language, but we have our moments).
Because when we have a chance to take a step back, there is no real reason for shock or disbelief. The explanation is perfectly clear, when taking into account the particular student’s life experiences, and ultimately their failure to have properly learned appropriate self-control, self-discipline, emotional management, etc. Whatever their story is, the fact of the matter is that they have not been able to develop adequately.
Something I have found fascinating in working with such teens is that, once a degree of rapport has been established, how often it is that they are able to express their own insight into their behavior. Unformed, lacking in narrative, etc., sure, but they know at some level their inadequacies. Some of the best work I feel I have done, the most progress I have made with students, has been achieved through helping them to better understand themselves by trying to create an environment in which they feel safe enough to be vulnerable. This is not done by diminishing them and provoking their superficial pride and ego through humiliation (flying off the handle is actually embarrassing, in that you are not in control of yourself, and end up with regrets).
One student of mine, who I, for pedagogically tactical reasons, chose to essentially counsel all period instead of doing my normal rounds, wanted so adamantly for other people not to treat her like she was “crazy”. This, she asked for, while recounting the time she got in trouble for yelling at the cops to leave her the “f#ck alone”. “But *****”, I told her, “you ARE crazy. You have serious anger problems. But you know what, that’s OK. We’re all a bit crazy at times. And most of us haven’t been through half of what you have. “More than anything, she wanted validation. She knew she was a mess, but she didn’t want to be only a mess. Ever since that day, she still barely does her work. But some kind of calm seems to have come over her, and she no longer seems like the quietly brewing tempest she once was. If only she can continue to find others in her life who validate her, she’ll have a chance of making it.
There’s a deep logic to human behavior. So many of us take our developmental maturity for granted, and subsequently find it difficult to understand the behavior of those who fail to behave appropriately. In what might be described as egotistic arrogance, we imagine their level of cognitive awareness to be equal to ours, and thus the behavior to be not an outgrowth of natural development, but of conscious disregard. And when we treat them thusly, I think it entirely logical for them to take extreme offense. Because yes, if they knew better, they would be “dummies”. But they obviously didn’t really know better (in a sort of universal, developmental sense). We can see this illustrated quite clearly in the classic case of the cold, unloving parent or guardian: a child makes an honest mistake, and the caregiver over-reacts, i.e. assumes more developmental capacity than is appropriate. We naturally understand this to be a miscarriage of justice.
While adults are not children, and the infractions maybe more severe, the same dynamic is at work. We ought to recognize our intuition about the child’s treatment and imagine it in the emotional composition of the perpetrator. If he is not treated with dignity, there will be no object to which he will be able to appeal for justice, other than that which resides within his own, internal understanding of fairness. A subjectivity which of course, considering transpiring events, and certainly in the “heat” of the moment, as higher brain functions are limited, ought not be something in which to place our faith. So as we still have a leveraging role to play in our relationship, mutual respect is an invaluable commodity.